NT cotton defies challenging start to season

Emma Alsop June 19, 2024

The cotton gin near Katherine in the Northern Territory began processing its first bales last month. Photo: Cotton Australia

COTTON picking is under way in the Northern Territory, with crops defying the poor weather conditions that brought rainfall of over two metres in some areas and weeks without sunlight.

Better-performing crops are predicted to yield 4-5 bales per hectare, an excellent result for a growing region that aims for a 5-7b/ha yield.

Commencement of picking comes one month after the Katherine gin began processing its first bales using cotton stored from the 2023 crop.

The gin is operating in a joint venture between WANT (Western Australia Northern Territory) Cotton and Louis Dreyfus Company.

WANT Cotton chairman and Tipperary Station general manager David Connolly said the gin was operating well, and the last of the 2023 lint should be processed by the end of June.

Alongside gin operations, Mr Connolly also oversees cotton production at Tipperary, where picking is under way.

He said “extremely high rainfall and low sunlight” hit the crop early in the season, but the plants recovered somewhat during boll fill and opening.

“We had over 2m [of rain] and then we had 63 days of overcast weather in January and February,” Mr Connolly said.

“We have a crop and it’s a fair crop…considering the climatic conditions.

“The plant is incredibly resilient, there is no doubt about that, and it struggled back after the wet.

“If you want to grow rainfed or dryland cotton, you’ve got to take what the environment gives you.”

Cotton Seed Distributors extension and development agronomist NT and Western Australia Angus Marshall said overall growers were “fairly happy with how everything is coming off at the moment”, a great outcome considering the poor growing conditions throughout the season.

“It was a bit of a tough season with some parts of the Territory having the wettest wet season in 30 years,” Mr Marshall said.

“Some of the cotton crops had over two metres of rain, which is ridiculous.

“On top of that, with the monsoonal conditions, you get clouded out for a number of weeks.”

Mr Marshall said the wet season started cutting off as a lot of the cotton was opening, which has allowed crops to recover.

“The quality should be okay and so far, the yields have been better than expected, which has been good.”

He said disease and pest issues have been lower than expected.

“I thought with the wet year, we would have seen a lot of leaf disease around, which we have seen in the past, but there was barely any of it this year.”

Plantings down on predictions

Overall, NT cotton area was lower than initially predicted, with a combination of dry and wet weather preventing some growers from planting their full program.

Mr Marshall said growers around Katherine had to hold off on planting due to lack of rainfall in December, then were held up by wet weather in January.

“We had a tough run with planting this year.

“It went from being so dry and when it started raining, it didn’t stop.”

WA suffers poor start

Mr Marshall said across the border, Ord growers also had to contend with a “tough start” to the season, with planting kicking off in February.

“They had a really big wet season.

“They had four or five days at the start of February where it was dry enough to plant and a lot of the guys thankfully got their cotton in but after that, it didn’t stop raining until the end of March.

“The cotton battled for the first eight weeks and was pretty waterlogged but, taking that into account, it came up pretty well.”

Mr Marshall said crops still have time to recover and develop with picking due to commence from August.

Premier Roger Cook (centre) with Kimberley Agricultural Investments general manager Jim Engelke and Minister for Regional Development Don Punch. Photo: Roger Cook

WA gin on track

As production ramps up at the Katherine gin, progress on the WA facility in Katherine remains on track for completion in mid-2025.

Work on the foundation of Kimberley Cotton Company’s facility is complete and cladding on the steel frame is set to commence shortly.

The cotton gin will initially have capacity to process up to 110,000 bales per year, with plans to eventually double that capacity.

WA Premier Roger Cook and Regional Development Minister Don Punch earlier this month inspected progress of the gin.

“It is terrific to see first-hand the progress of cotton gin building works and gain an insight into how this exciting initiative will contribute to the development of a sustainable cotton industry,” Mr Cook said in a statement.

Mr Cook said the facility had benefited from investment and support from the WA government including providing a $5 million grant to KCC through the Investment Attraction Fund and $4M in upgrades to electricity infrastructure.

“Our government’s substantial investment in the Ord is starting to come to fruition, launching a new era of cotton production that will drive enduring economic and social benefits throughout the region.”

On the 5400ha Knox farmlands, Kimberley Agricultural Investment in partnership with Keep Farming, is undertaking preparatory works, with initial cotton plantings expected next year.

Backed by local growers and traditional owners, this leased area is set to play an important role in building scale for cotton production and processing in the region.


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